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Not a good sign: Lawyers getting involved between NASCAR, new Race Team Alliance

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When the new Race Team Alliance introduced itself to the world July 7, everything seemed like sunny skies and good feelings going forward in the world of NASCAR. Everyone spoke positively, optimistically and seemed to be full of confidence that all — owners, drivers, teams and NASCAR — would benefit.

Even NASCAR president Mike Helton said during an impromptu press conference last Friday at New Hampshire that there was no animosity between the sanctioning body and the new upstart ownership group.

“I wanted to dispel the perception of animosity to start with and then back that up with saying we’re going to do business as usual,” Helton said. “I think everybody in the garage area knows how we do our business and the role they play in it, and so we’ll continue to do it that way.”

But less than a week after Helton’s comments, the first salvo of what potentially could become an eventual antagonistic relationship has been fired, and it boils down to what oftentimes is one of the nastiest words in professional sports:

Lawyers.

The amicable original intention of the RTA has now been responded to by International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s sister company, as well as NASCAR itself. Both sibling companies have made it very clear to the RTA that if there is to be any communication between both sides, it will be through attorneys, not man-to-man between RTA boss and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France or second-in-command Helton.

As the old saying goes, can you see where this could potentially go to hell in a handbasket very quickly when lawyers are involved?

Kauffman, at least publicly, doesn’t seem overly concerned, according to an interview with Bob Pockrass of SportingNews.com late Wednesday.

“It’s not an animosity thing, it’s just a formality thing,” Kauffman told Pockrass. “NASCAR is a big company and they’re very sensitive legally. They’ve had experience (with antitrust) and they want to be very formal and correct in the initial stages. … It’s understandable. Hopefully as time goes on and both sides get used to each other a little bit, those barriers (will) tend to go down. I think it will be fine.”

The RTA’s original intention of pooling resources, cutting expenses, etc., is quite noble indeed. Even with countless cost-cutting measures, including large-scale layoffs in recent years, plus teams folding throughout all three primary NASCAR series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – the cost of operating teams remains extremely expensive.

Only 10 years ago, the average team operational budget in Sprint Cup was in the $10 to $15 million per year range – just to competitive.

Today, that number is more in the $20 to $25 million per year range — again, just to be competitive. And when you have multiple teams within an organization, that cost can quickly reach upwards of $100 million for a four-car group like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing and up to $75 million for a three-car operation like Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing.

For all the good things NASCAR has done to reduce costs, including the one-engine rule, the interchangeable Car of Tomorrow and its Generation 6 successor, it still costs a lot for team owners to remain in the game.

That’s why it’s not surprising some teams have folded or suspended operations, including at least two Sprint Cup teams this season already.

That’s also why so many sponsors have come and gone over the last six or seven years, and have forced teams to go from having one primary sponsor all season long to a number of different primary sponsors for only a certain numbered block of races per season.

The reason: overall, sponsoring a finite number of races (anywhere from, say, six to 16) is much cheaper and an easier pill to swallow for sponsors, particularly when questioned about return on investment by their shareholders.

And with significant changes likely to come to the sport next season, including a revamped schedule, the possibility of several venue changes within the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as more rules and equipment changes, the nine initial owner members of the RTA are understandably looking out for themselves both individually and collectively.

But with lawyers now involved, the hoped-for amicable relationship gives the appearance that things are already starting to tug at the seams.

Few have discussed the power the RTA could potentially amass in its one-for-all, all-for-one mantra. It’s not unthinkable that if NASCAR continues to struggle at the box office and in TV ratings, that RTA may try to exert and wield some pretty powerful clout:

  • Like forcing NASCAR to deviate from its “our way or the highway” mindset that has been in place for 65 years.
  • Like forcing NASCAR to give team owners significantly more power, perhaps a prelude to the long-talked about possibility of adding franchising to give owners more of a say in the way the sport operates.
  • And the biggest potential possibility of the RTA: If the owners stay united and take a hard line stance and force the issue, they could eventually demand the power to oust or retain key NASCAR officials, including France and Helton.

That last possibility could also potentially be why both sides are now starting to lawyer up. While the intention is supposed to be amicable and formal, the end result could be something entirely different.

After all, team owners in NASCAR have the least power overall of any other major professional sport. Unlike in other sports, NASCAR team owners don’t have the ability to hire or fire the sanctioning body’s top executives, don’t have voting privileges when it comes to sanctioning body decisions, have no say in what rules can be changed (although owners do have input, NASCAR doesn’t have to listen to them), and have only the limited power that the sanctioning body gives them.

Up to this point, the France family-run and privately-owned business model has worked well. Well, let’s clarify that: it’s worked well up until about 2008, when the economy went south and NASCAR’s fortunes, popularity and TV ratings began to go with it.

But I’m not saying France, Helton and others have been the cause of NASCAR’s downfall in recent years. On the contrary.

France and Helton and those under them have done a good job when faced with some very trying circumstances and situations – certainly circumstances and situations that most other sports leagues have not had to deal with as much.

NASCAR’s top officials have worked diligently to improve safety, control costs as best they can, brought parity to the performance of race cars and trucks while also making the overall racing better, and have worked hard to attract new sponsors and businesses to the sport.

They’ve worked at trying to convince hotel chains and chambers of commerce in various locales that NASCAR visits to not gouge fans for room costs on race weekends, lest that not only hurts the fans, it also hurts the overall sport and the businesses themselves.

They’ve worked to keep the sport viable and relevant. They’ve worked at alternative ways to get the sport’s message across when countless media outlets have all but forgotten coverage of NASCAR events and news. Whereas particularly newspapers used to devote hundreds of column inches to yearly NASCAR coverage in the past, now most of those same papers will run maybe a paragraph or two at best (some even less, giving nothing more than a one-sentence “report” of who won that week’s race).

Sadly, while NASCAR certainly loses in that instance, it’s the fans that lose the most because they’re deprived of the kind of expansive media coverage that helped make them fans in the first place.

While I was optimistic and hopeful that the RTA and NASCAR relationship would be good for the sport, the fact that we will now have third party attorneys doing the “communicating” between both sides is both foreboding and ominous.

We can hope for the best, but right now the best is starting to look quite concerning.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Mazda MX-5 VIR photo finish caps busy sports/touring car weekend

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Photo: Mazda Motorsports
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We already touched on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge races from VIRginia International Raceway but this weekend featured quite a bit more sports car and touring car racing action from around the globe.

Here’s some very quick recaps and race winners in events of note:

Also at VIR, the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup ran a pair of races. The second one, Sunday morning, was the highlight of the weekend.

In a crazy five-car deep finish featuring the new Global MX-5 Cup car, series veteran Nathanael Sparks finally secured his first career victory to extend his championship points lead.  The margin of victory from Sparks to Chris Stone was 0.017 seconds, while the margin from first to fifth was just 0.15 seconds. You can watch the finish below, with commentary via the Radio Show Limited team of Shea Adam and past MX-5 Cup series champion Kenton Koch.

Sparks finished runner-up in the first race of the weekend on Saturday to Dean Copeland, with Nikko Reger in third. Sparks, Stone and John Dean II were the podium on Sunday. Sparks leads Ara Malkhassian, 501-432, in the championship with Copeland third on 423.

The $200,000 Mazda Road to 24 scholarship is on the line entering the finale at Road Atlanta next month, although a trip out to Mazda’s spiritual home track, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, beckons next Sept. 9-11 for the non-points Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Invitational.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Porsche GT3 Cup USA Challenge by Yokohama ran a pair of races at VIR as well. Well, “races” in the academic sense – Montreal’s Jesse Lazare continued his domination at the front of the field in the No. 21 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche. Lazare swept to his eighth and ninth wins of the year in 12 races.

On Saturday, Lazare beat Andrew Longe by 1.296 seconds while on Sunday, he beat Lucas Catania to the finish by 13.761 seconds, a season-high. Lazare padded his points lead over Longe to 213-178. Catania is third with 173.

Saturday’s race included a red flag period of 21 minutes due to a single-car accident involving Platinum Masters competitor Bill Peluchiwski in the No. 74 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche. Peluchiwski is awake and alert and has been admitted to an area hospital for evaluation. Further updates will follow at a later date.

This series heads next to Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 14-17) and finishes at Road Atlanta (Sept. 28-Oct. 1).

Michimi. Photo: Jamey Price/Lamborghini
Michimi. Photo: Jamey Price/Lamborghini

The Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America series joined others in the doubleheader at VIR. And like in Porsche, there was only one overall winner. Shinya Michimi of Prestige Performance (representing Lamborghini Paramus) won his fifth and sixth races in eight overall this year.

Of note, Indianapolis 500 rookie Stefan Wilson scored his first series podium in race two, coming third in the Pro-Am category with co-driver David Seabrooke for Prestige.  Additionally, full-time Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda competitor Yufeng Luo made his series debut and in race one, finishing third overall and first in Pro-Am with teammate Richard Antinucci for Shane Senaviratne’s US RaceTronics team.

Lamborghini’s last U.S. round of the year takes place at Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 14-17) before the World Final in Valencia, Spain in December.

Whincup (left) and Lowndes (right). (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Australia’s Virgin Australia Supercars Championship ran two races at Sydney Motorsport Park this weekend, with Shane van Gisbergen (No. 97 Red Bull Racing Australia Holden Commodore VF) and Jamie Whincup (No. 88 Red Bull Holden) winning the two races. But it milestones for Whincup and Craig Lowndes took over in the spotlight.

Whincup’s win was particularly important; it was his 100th of his career. A fuller breakdown is linked here via the Supercars official website, as is a tribute from series chief James Warburton.

Longtime teammate Lowndes, a legend in his own right and the only other driver to have 100 races, celebrated a milestone of his own by hitting the 600-start mark. Fuller stories on that is linked here and here as well, while it appears a new deal for him to stay with Triple Eight boss Roland Dane is looming on the horizon. This year, Lowndes drives the TeamVortex Holden Commodore VF.

Supercars is next up at Sandown Sept. 16-18 and then runs its premier race of the year, the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, Oct. 7-9.

Toyota Gazoo Racing FIA WEC driver and past IndyCar race winner Mike Conway made a cameo in the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan and helped that team’s No. 46 entry with co-drivers Pierre Thiriet and Mathias Beche to its third win in a row at the European Le Mans Series‘ race in Paul Ricard (LMP2 class). Conway filled in for Ryo Hirakawa, who was on Super GT duty.

Others of note… ex-IndyCar and GP2 veteran Stefano Coletti was second in the SMP car he shares with Julian Leal and Andreas Wirth, Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed entry was third, Graff won LMP3 with its No. 9 car but the No. 10 car that features Americans Sean Rayhall and John Falb failed to finish, and Mike Hedlund’s Proton Competition Porsche he shared with Wolf Henzler and Marco Seefried was sixth in GTE, a class won by JMW Motorsport.

ELMS is next up at Spa on Sept. 25, with the season finale at Estoril on Oct. 23.

The Japanese Autobacs Super GT Series was in Suzuka this weekend for a 1000 km race. Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura won overall in the GT500 class in the No. 38 Zent Cerumo Lexus RC F. Hirakawa and James Rossiter failed to finish. Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi won in GT300 in the No. 61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport Subaru BRZ GT300.

Next up for them is Thailand Oct. 8-9.

 

Alex Keyes breaks through for GRC Lites win at Atlantic City

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Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool
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Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Alex Keyes, who’s running a limited season in the GRC Lites division of Red Bull Global Rallycross this season, secured his first 2016 win on Sunday in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Teammate Cabot Bigham finished fifth and retains the GRC Lites points lead, with two more weekends of the year to go in Seattle and Los Angeles. Bigham won the series’ most recent final round in Washington, D.C.

The series’ race recap is below:

IN BRIEF: Alex Keyes did something he’d never done before: he won every single session of GRC Lites action in Atlantic City. From turning the fastest laps in practice and qualifying, to winning both of his heats and the main event, he posted the first perfect weekend of his career; first-time podium finisher Travis PeCoy and Colin Braun placed second and third.

HEAT RECAPS: Keyes blasted out to the lead in both of his heats to back up his pole position and earn lane choice in the main event. Conner Martell, who qualified second overall, won the other first-round heat, but fell back to third in the second round; instead, it was AF Racing Team’s Christian Brooks who would take his first career heat victory in that session. Braun would earn the win in the last chance qualifier over defending series champion Oliver Eriksson.

MAIN EVENT RECAP: For a majority of the race, the podium wasn’t in question; Keyes jumped out to an early lead, PeCoy settled into second place by the second lap, and Braun staked a claim to third place before the race reached halfway. But behind them, the field shuffled throughout the race, with championship contenders having to deal with the implications.

Miki Weckstrom briefly held a top-three spot, but slid back in the pack as the race went on. Martell also had to claw his way forward in the main event to get back into the top six. It was championship leader Cabot Bigham who did the most work to get up front, though; after falling back to ninth on the start, he still made his way back up to fifth. Likewise, Eriksson still managed to salvage fourth place after his LCQ appearance.

UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: The results from Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Atlantic City, the ninth round of the 2016 GRC Lites season:

  1. Alex Keyes, #24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
  2. Travis PeCoy, #3 AF Racing Team
  3. Colin Braun, #56 CORE autosport
  4. Oliver Eriksson, #16 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  5. Cabot Bigham, #2 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
  6. Conner Martell, #21 DirtFish Motorsports
  7. Miki Weckstrom, #45 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  8. Sandra Hultgren, #51 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  9. Christian Brooks, #44 AF Racing Team
  10. Alejandro Fernandez, #126 AF Racing Team
  11. Cole Keatts, #53 Olsbergs MSE X Forces
  12. Jon Bennett, #54 CORE autosport

QUOTES: A selection of quotes from Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Atlantic City, the ninth round of the 2016 GRC Lites season:

Alex Keyes, #24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: “This is a great way to end my half of the year! It’s actually been a pretty rough year so far, I haven’t had the results that I’ve wanted, and I’ve made some mistakes along the way. It feels great to finish good, because there are a lot of great people behind it. We have some new partners, but I’m still at DRR—I love the team and everyone on there. We have a mechanic with a birthday today, so this is a nice gift for him. Everyone on the team has been great, and it’s been a great year.”

Travis PeCoy, #3 AF Racing Team: “It’s been building this whole season. The last race, I was fourth and chasing the podium, so I had to get it done this weekend. Keyes was unstoppable this weekend, so kudos to him—he was on rails all day. The Joker really came in handy, and then Weckstrom made a mistake, so I was able to capitalize on that. It was really good racing, thanks to everyone who ran a proper and clean race, and thanks to my whole team. They work so hard, especially coming off of a terrible qualifying run, so it was a surprise to find myself in second. I’m stoked for my mechanics and all my sponsors.”

Colin Braun, #56 CORE autosport: “It’s a blast! This is so fun, very different from what I came from in the style of racing. We proved today that if you find yourself in the LCQ, and you have a fast car, you’re not out of it—but it makes it a lot harder. Hats off to these guys. The CORE autosport guys did a great job of getting the car fixed back up in between rounds, my spotter made a good call on the Joker, and we had good pace. It’s a whole new world, and it’s a blast.”

FAST FACTS: A collection of facts from Sunday’s Red Bull Global Rallycross Atlantic City, the ninth round of the 2016 GRC Lites season:

  • Alex Keyes earned the fourth victory of his GRC Lites career, and his first of the 2016 season, on Sunday at Bader Field. It was Keyes’ second podium of the season after a third place in Phoenix, in his final scheduled appearance with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing this year.
  • Travis PeCoy earned his first career Lites podium by placing second in Atlantic City. He also gave the AF Racing Team its first podium result of 2016, while besting a season-high result of fourth earned at Washington DC last month.
  • Colin Braun gave CORE autosport its second podium finish of the season with a third place result on Sunday. Braun’s first podium of the year came in his Lites debut in Daytona in June.
  • None of the top five drivers in the championship standings earned podium finishes on Sunday. Oliver Eriksson (second in points) led the group with a fourth place run, while championship leader Cabot Bigham followed him in fifth.
  • Christian Brooks won the first heat of his GRC Lites career in the second round of heats on Sunday. Brooks finished ninth in the main event.

UNOFFICIAL DRIVER POINTS:

  1. Cabot Bigham, 344
  2. Oliver Eriksson, 324
  3. Miki Weckstrom, 306
  4. Conner Martell, 267
  5. Christian Brooks, 210
  6. Alex Keyes, 178
  7. Travis PeCoy, 175
  8. Tanner Whitten, 165
  9. Alejandro Fernandez, 153
  10. Colin Braun, 106
  11. Collete Davis, 94
  12. Parker Chase, 85
  13. Harry Gottsacker, 85
  14. Trenton Estep, 57
  15. Blake “Bilko” Williams, 55
  16. Sandra Hultgren, 36
  17. Preston Murray, 33
  18. Jon Bennett, 29
  19. Cole Keatts, 15
  20. Nur Ali, 3

Newgarden ends as IndyCar’s top oval driver in 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Even though he only was able to complete four of the five oval races in 2016, Josef Newgarden ended as the Verizon IndyCar Series’ top-scoring driver in them this year.

The driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing won in dominant fashion at Iowa Speedway, came third at the double points Indianapolis 500, fourth in Pocono, and sixth in Phoenix.

His accident at Texas Motor Speedway in June, of course, left him with a fractured right clavicle and a slight fracture to his right hand. That threatened to rule him out of action but the determined young American driver made it back in time for the next race at Road America, persevering through to finish eighth. He was not, however, allowed to restart the resumption of the Firestone 600 on Saturday night.

Will Power was second in oval points. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet won at Pocono and added a second at Iowa, third in Phoenix, eighth in Texas and 10th in the Indianapolis 500.

Power, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais were the only three drivers who finished in the top-10 in each of the five oval races.

Kanaan tied with Scott Dixon for fourth in oval points after another strong season. Bourdais, not usually a top-10 finisher on ovals, broke that trend this year.

Alexander Rossi, thanks in large part to his win at the Indianapolis 500, ended third in oval points. He also has his second-best finish of the year – sixth at Iowa – on an oval this year. He ran well at the first portion of Texas but lost a couple laps in the resumption; his pit road incident at Pocono, meanwhile, provided one of the year’s scarier moments – albeit one where all parties emerged uninjured.

Of note, Simon Pagenaud was eighth in oval points – and that’s slightly misleading because his only “off race” of the five ovals was Indianapolis, which featured double points. Second at Phoenix, fourth in Iowa and fourth in Texas were three good results; his only mistake came at Pocono, where he crashed at Turn 1.

Further down the order Juan Pablo Montoya had a miserable run of results on ovals; he only outscored Jack Hawksworth, Ed Carpenter and Conor Daly of drivers that competed in all five oval rounds.

And Carpenter’s year behind the wheel? That can be crystallized in one unfortunate stat. Yes, double points were involved, but his teammate JR Hildebrand outscored him competing in just one oval race, with sixth at Indy. Carpenter’s best finish in five races was just 18th.

Points are below. The races, are in order, are 2-Phoenix, 6-Indy 500, 9-Texas (was originally the ninth round of the season before rain-delayed postponement until Saturday), 11-Iowa and 14-Pocono. C is Chevrolet and H is Honda.

Points (Top 25 of 34 drivers):

# Driver 2 6 (9) 11 14 Total
21 Newgarden C 28 111 9 53 33 234
12 Power C 35 73 24 40 51 223
98 Rossi H 16 124 19 29 11 199
9 Dixon C 53 69 11 36 29 198
10 Kanaan C 32 81 36 26 23 198
26 Munoz H 8 115 28 18 26 195
5 Hinchcliffe H 12 95 43 22 20 192
22 Pagenaud C 40 50 32 34 13 169
83 Kimball C 18 78 28 20 15 159
11 Bourdais C 24 59 20 24 31 158
15 Rahal H 30 40 51 14 19 154
3 Castroneves C 21 65 31 17 11 145
7 Aleshin H 13 40 14 30 44 141
28 Hunter-Reay H 20 53 18 8 36 135
27 Andretti H 17 54 18 16 18 123
8 Chilton C 26 42 15 12 17 112
2 Montoya C 23 27 22 10 24 106
41 Hawksworth H 11 31 13 15 16 86
14 Sato H 15 32 10 19 8 84
6 Hildebrand C 76 76
20 Carpenter C 9 24 13 12 9 67
18 Daly H 14 20 9 9 14 66
19 Chaves H 33 16 13 62
77 Servia H 60 60
29 Bell H 55 55

Ricky Taylor to run next three FIA WEC races in Larbre Corvette

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Ricky Taylor, C, sits with member of his crew before qualifying for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 3, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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Ricky Taylor and Larbre Competition have worked together before, with Taylor having driven for the Jack Leconte-led team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice in both an older spec Corvette C6.R (2013) and an LMP2 class Morgan Judd (2014).

He’ll be back for a bigger bow with the team for the next three upcoming races of the FIA World Endurance Championship, in the team’s No. 50 Corvette C7.R at Mexico City next weekend (Sept. 3), Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 17) and Fuji Speedway in Japan (Oct. 16).

Taylor fills in for Paolo Ruberti alongside the team’s other two drivers, Pierre Ragues and Yutaka Yamagishi. Additionally, Corvette will provide support with a new engineer, Charlie Ping, joining the French squad.

The story was initially reported by Sportscar365 back in July, but was formally confirmed by the team late last week.

“I am very excited to join Larbre for these three rounds of the WEC championship,” Taylor said in a relase. “The team has proven its great pace this season by clinching good results. I am looking forward to supporting the squad to more success and to do my part to contribute to some points for the championship for Pierre, Yutaka and the team.

” I have enjoyed my other experiences with the outfit so it will be a nice experience to be back. Thanks to Jack and Larbre again for thinking of me and giving me the opportunity to fly their colors again.”

This will mean Taylor will be one of likely several drivers pulling double duty at Circuit of The Americas between the FIA WEC and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races; that’s the penultimate round of that series’ season. He co-drives with brother Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor Racing.